Thursday, 10 Nov 2011

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Everyone is familiar with the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, describing the binding of Isaac. Yet in some ways, the chapter that precedes it, also in this week’s parashah, is just as poignant and disturbing. Following the birth of Isaac, it tells of a painful rupture in Abraham’s family. Sarah, jealous of Abraham’s first-born son Ishmael, demands that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be banished from the household—a demand that, we are told, was endorsed by God. Abraham sends his servant woman together with his thirteen-year-old son whom she had borne into the wilderness on foot, carrying a flask of water and a loaf of bread. When the water is used up, Hagar desolate, leaving her son to die, collapsing in despair.

The passage obviously reflects a society in which a servant woman who was her master’s concubine expected few rights for herself or her children. Yet the human pathos of the story—the frailty of Sarah threatened by the younger concubine and her maturing son, the dilemma of Abraham, torn between conflicting loyalties and loves, reluctantly acceding to the wishes of his wife, the plight of Hagar losing her way in the wilderness and unable to bear the sight of her son’s death by thirst—these elements cannot fail to touch the heart.

The poignance is heightened by a rabbinic interpretation, quoted in Rashi’s commentary. The Midrash (Gen. Rab. 53:14) addresses the verse, “God heard the voice of the boy where he is” (ba-asher hu sham, Gen. 21:17), saying: this shows that God responds to the prayer of the sick, the downtrodden, the outcast, before all other prayers.

The text continues: the angels tried to convince God not to save the child, for they knew that his descendants, the Ishmaelites, later identified with the Arabs, would oppress the people of Israel; the angels therefore argued that it would be better to leave the boy to die. But God brushed aside these considerations. Right now there is a human being in need, right now there is someone worthy of help, so God would respond to his suffering and provide for him.

The import of this is unmistakable. Our tradition demands compassion for the outcasts, for the needy, even if they are not of our own people and faith, simply because they are human beings. Perhaps the most powerful and original insight of the Hebrew Scripture is the commandment of empathy: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The alien who dwells among you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God” (Lev. 19:33).

For some this passage describing God’s concern for the banished Ishmael may evoke the eviction by police of the Travellers community at the Dale Farm site in Essex several weeks ago, raising difficult questions about the tension or conflict between the rule of law and the need for compassion toward a community of those who seem to many to be outsiders, strangers.

But let’s look to a location farther geographically but closer to that of our parashah. I was stunned by Jonathan Freedland’s article in last Friday’s Jewish Chronicle under the title, “This is Israel? Not the one I love.” Much of it was devoted to the city of Hebron. I remember driving there from Jerusalem in the 1970s with Israeli friends who had degrees in Arabic and Islamic studies from the Hebrew University. As we walked through the area abutting the Ibrahimi Mosque over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, they stopped to chat with Arab acquaintances in the busy market place—people who were friendly, hospitable, proud of their city and its history. That was before a Jewish settlement was established in the heart of the city.

Freedland, who recently visited Hebron, writes, “The centre of a city of 175,000 people has been utterly emptied, its streets deserted, its shops vacant, thanks to a policy the Israeli army calls ‘sterilisation’—ensuring the area is clear and safe for Hebron’s 800 Jewish settlers. In what was once a throbbing market district, a place teeming with life, successive restrictions have been placed on Hebron’s Palestinian population. A map shows purple roads where no Palestinian cars are permitted, yellow roads where no Palestinian shops are allowed to open, and red roads where no Palestinians are even allowed to walk.”

Reading this I felt the emotions of horror, anger, and sadness all welling up within me. I could not restrain the memories of Purim 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, a militant American doctor who had settled in Hebron, massacred 29 Muslims and injured 125 more, all at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque over the Patriarchs’ tombs—and also memories of the 1929 massacre of Jewish civilians by Palestinian Arabs.

I found myself thinking, has Abraham’s decision to banish his son Ishmael together with his servant Hagar become a model for Israeli policy? Because of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron came to be considered one of the “four holy cities” of the “holy land”, along with Safed, Tiberias, and of course Jerusalem. Is Hebron today what it means to be a “holy city”? A place where Arabs, including many whose families have lived in and prayed  for more generations than they can remember, are restricted and humiliated? Is this indeed the Israel that we love?

“God heard the voice of the child where he was”. Surely this means that God hears the voices of the children of Hebron, and of their mothers and fathers and grandparents, whose lives have been so disrupted in order to protect the Jewish settlers who moved in uninvited.

Near the end of next week’s parashah, we will read that Isaac and Ishmael come together, apparently for the first time since Ishmael was banished, to bury their father Abraham in the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25:9). How long will it take until the land of Israel becomes a place where the descendants of Isaac and of Ishmael can once again come together for a common constructive purpose?

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
November 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.